MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexico’s main opposition party scrambled on Tuesday to name a new candidate for governor in Sunday’s election in a northern border state after suspected drug hitmen killed the front-runner.
Electoral officials said they would go ahead with the vote in Tamaulipas state despite the murder of Rodolfo Torre, candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Leaders of the party and its governors from states across Mexico met in Tamaulipas capital Ciudad Victoria to choose a nominee as politicians from all parties suspended campaigning in the state. A decision was expected later on Tuesday.
Supporters filled a convention center in Ciudad Victoria to pay tribute to the slain politician. “Together, we will not be beaten,” PRI leader Beatriz Paredes told grieving politicians.
In the worst case of political intimidation by drug cartels since President Felipe Calderon launched his war on traffickers in late 2006, gunmen ambushed the popular Torre on his way to a campaign event in Tamaulipas, across the border from Texas, on Monday morning.
It was Mexico’s highest-level political murder in 16 years and the latest blow to the country’s image as a stable emerging market, hitting the Mexican peso on Monday as TV images showed Torres’ body lying on a highway outside his campaign vehicle.
The death toll from Mexico’s drug war has exceeded 25,500 in 3-1/2 years as cartels fight each other and Mexico’s security forces, and analysts questioned now long Calderon could stick with the same military-backed drug war.
“The candidate’s murder leaves Calderon’s strategy more fragile than ever,” said security analyst Fernando Dworak, warning that a continued escalation of violence could hurt the ruling National Action Party’s chance of victory in the 2012 presidential elections.
Across Tamaulipas on Tuesday, Torre’s red and green campaign posters still lined highways and town squares, but streets were quiet as many residents stayed at home.
The state and the nearby city of Monterrey have become a battleground as the Gulf cartel and the Zetas gang vie to control smuggling routes into Texas.
“We are in all shock. Everyone is very scared because these gangs are showing that they are running the elections, not us,” said a PRI supporter who gave her name as Rosa Maria in the city of Reynosa.
Calderon, a conservative who is under increasing pressure to control drug violence, blamed organized crime for the killing but stopped short of naming cartels. Mexican media speculated that Torre may have been killed by Zeta gunmen in retaliation for receiving campaign funds from the Gulf cartel.
“What happened yesterday ... shows ... a clear complicity between politicians and cartels,” Mexico’s leading newspaper Reforma wrote in a front page editorial.
PRI leaders deny any wrongdoing or links to drug cartels.
Calderon called for unity in an address on Tuesday and pledged to defend Mexico’s democracy against drug gangs who have launched a campaign of intimidation against politicians running in local elections. “This is a challenge that my government will not evade,” he said in a speech in Mexico City.
Investors’ concerns that hit the peso on Monday were overshadowed by bigger fears about the health of the world economy on Tuesday.
But economists warned that any escalation in political killings by drug gangs could spark a bigger sell-off in the longer term. Drug violence across Mexico is a major concern for Washington and investors, forcing some U.S. companies to freeze investment in factories in border cities such as Monterrey and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico’s most violent drug war city.
Calderon aide Rafael Fernandez de Castro told reporters late on Monday the government was worried about collateral damage from the drug war, like a possible drop in investment.
Some Tamaulipas voters said Torre’s murder made them more determined to vote. “The actions of organized crime in the elections are a threat to our democracy. We need to be brave and vote this weekend,” said laborer Oscar Castillo, 45.
Additional reporting by Lorena Segura, Adriana Barrera and Miguel Angel Gutierrez in Mexico City; Editing by Cynthia Osterman